USDA to list stores in recalls of meat
In a shift on federal food safety policy, the Bush administration soon will begin telling consumers during recalls whether their local grocery store has been stocking contaminated meat or poultry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which announced the change Friday, currently publicizes food recalls and sources but does not tell consumers where the tainted products have gone.
Long-standing anger about this policy flared in February during the largest beef recall in U.S. history, when the Agriculture Department refused to make public the schools and stores that carried beef recalled by the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.
On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer announced that the rule change would apply only to recalls involving “a reasonable probability of serious health consequences or death for those with weakened immune systems.”
“People want to know if they need to be on the lookout for recalled meat and poultry from their local store,” Schafer said. “By providing lists of retail outlets during recalls, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service will improve public health protection.”
The announcement comes on the heels of two serious beef recalls that began in late June and were expanded over the Fourth of July weekend.
A Nebraska firm recalled more than 5 million pounds of beef, and an Ohio retailer recalled an “undetermined amount” of ground beef products, both because of suspected E. coli contamination.
Concerns about food safety have also been heightened by the recent salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes.
The new policy, which will take effect in 30 days, drew faint praise from lawmakers and food safety advocates. Food retailers were critical, arguing that it would not give consumers accurate enough information.
“The most important information for consumers to have in a USDA recall is the brand name, container size and manufacturer coding information marked on meat and poultry products,” said Robert Brackett, chief science officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., citing information that is already made available during a recall.
“This information . . . is far more timely, reliable and current than a generic list of retailers that might change over time and could very well be inaccurate to begin with.”
The impetus for the rule change came from four Democratic senators: Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
They wrote to Schafer in February after the Westland/Hallmark recall and asked that information about retailers be made public.
In the Feb. 27 letter, the senators noted that the Westland/Hallmark incident was coming “on the heels of more than 20 beef recalls in the last year. Consumers are understandably concerned about the safety of the food supply and are particularly anxious for information when a recall is announced.”
On Friday, the senators praised Schafer for acting on their proposal but had muted criticism for the rule change.
“I am somewhat disappointed that the proposed rule is limited to only recalls of tainted food that could cause serious injury or result in death and hope the USDA will broaden the rule to include other classes of recalled products as well,” Durbin said.
More than two years ago, the Agriculture Department division that oversees food safety proposed a retailer disclosure rule for all recalls.
The food industry opposed that initiative, arguing that retail information is proprietary and that the information wouldn’t help consumers.
The proposal sat in limbo until the Westland/Hallmark scandal, triggered when the Humane Society of America released the results of an undercover inquiry.
An investigator working at the Chino plant covertly filmed crippled and injured cows being forced to slaughter. Slaughterhouses are supposed to keep these “downer” cows out of the food system because they have a higher risk of carrying E. coli and the wasting neurological illness known as mad cow disease.
Agriculture officials classified the Westland/Hallmark recall as less serious because there was only a “remote possibility” the meat could sicken consumers. A total of 143 million pounds of beef were recalled.